Changing the Dynamic

James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

April 21, 2002

To outside observers, the events of the past two years in the Middle East have had the feel of a slow-motion train wreck. Everyone—conductors, passengers and bystanders—can clearly see the tragic outcome, but seems powerless to stop it. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried hard last week to step on the brake before it was too late, but he was unable even to get the train to slow down before returning home without a much-hoped-for cease-fire agreement.

What next? The Powell trip made clear that it will not be enough for the United States to exhort the two sides to pull back from disaster. Israelis and the Palestinians so distrust each other now that only outside actors can create the conditions that would give them confidence to step back from the brink.

The United States must now join with key Arab countries to provide the assurances that will allow both Israel and the Palestinians to achieve their key objectives: for Israel, security; and for the Palestinians, a viable state.

For a time, it seemed as if the Israelis and Palestinians wouldn’t need such guarantees from others. The tragic irony of the current impasse is that it represents the diametric opposite of the intent of the 1993 Oslo agreement.

What Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat envisioned at the time was a series of step-by-step measures to grant Palestinians increasing autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza while building Israelis’ confidence that relinquishing control wouldn’t compromise their security. The expectation was that this virtuous cycle would create conditions that would allow the two sides eventually to tackle the thorniest issues—Jerusalem, refugees, water and border security—and to establish a lasting peace.

But far from enhancing confidence, the Oslo process in recent years has served only to sow deeper and deeper mistrust. The Palestinians repeatedly accused Israel of dragging its feet on agreed interim withdrawals from territory in the West Bank. Israel, in turn, claimed that the Palestinian security forces—established by the Oslo accord—were not meeting their responsibility to crack down on groups like Hamas that were trying to sabotage the agreement through suicide attacks. Israel even charged that members of the security forces were involved in some of the attacks.

Premise of Oslo accord

Today, each side increasingly challenges the other’s commitment to the very premise of Oslo—Palestinian control over land taken after the 1967 war in return for real peace for Israel. More and more Israelis doubt the willingness of Palestinians to accept a Jewish state, while increasing numbers of Palestinians question Israel’s commitment to a viable Palestinian state.

Under these circumstances, the two parties face a version of what foreign-policy experts call a “security dilemma.” Because each side assumes the worst about the other, each feels the need to take unilateral measures to protect its interests.

For the Palestinians, this has meant increasingly violent resistance to the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza rather than reliance on diplomacy and negotiation. For Israel, it has meant taking security into its own hands rather than relying on the Palestinian security forces to stem violence.

As with all security dilemmas, the net result of the pattern of action and response seems only to make both sides worse off.

Palestinian suicide bombings, and the apparent acquiescence (if not support) of the Palestinian leadership for these tactics, have left the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority in ruins and the lives of the Palestinians far worse than at the start of the Oslo process. Israel, meanwhile, feels compelled to root out the terror through the use of force. But in trying to do so, it radicalizes the Palestinians, places deep strains on its relations with other Arab countries and risks its international reputation—jeopardizing its long-term goal of a stable, secure peace with its neighbors.

Still, neither side will break the pattern. Israel sees a return to negotiations without a cease-fire as a concession that will only embolden the terrorists. Palestinians believe that a cease-fire before Israeli withdrawal will reward Israel’s use of force and turn the clock back on Israeli withdrawals from territory previously handed over by agreement to the Palestinian Authority.

The longstanding antipathy between Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Arafat reinforces the distrust that drives this security dilemma. But because the two leaders grow more popular among their own constituents with each defiant response, it is unrealistic to expect either man to “take the first step” to walk back from this deadly dynamic.

Intervention a must

As history has shown, under these circumstances, the intervention of an outside party is necessary to change the dynamic, and to create the conditions that will help both parties.

We have seen this before in the Middle East, most recently in 1998, when—after 18 months of stalemate and increasing violence—then-President Clinton convened the Israelis and Palestinians at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland and produced an agreement that put the peace process back on track, at least temporarily.

Nor is such a strategy confined to the Middle East; in recent years, the United States, working with regional partners, helped Peru and Ecuador step back from a border conflict that served neither side’s interests.

What is needed now is to restore the credibility of the underlying premise of Oslo, through outside guarantors. They would need to assure that Israel will finally withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and support the creation of a Palestinian state, while also making sure the creation of that state is not a prelude to a new assault on Israel’s right to exist in peace. The United States must take the lead in this diplomatic effort; as Vice President Dick Cheney has acknowledged, “there isn’t anybody else” who has the influence with the parties and throughout the region.

But the United States cannot solve this alone. In this respect, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace initiative—approved by the Arab League just weeks ago—offers an important opportunity. It also gives each side incentives to change their calculations of whether turning away from a reliance on force will yield lasting benefits.

By promising to establish normal relations between Israel and the Arab world in return for Israeli concessions, the proposal appears to meet a key Israeli objective for its long-term security—the explicit acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East—while offering Palestinians their long-cherished goal of an independent state.

Given the Saudis’ special role in the Islamic world as guardians of the holy sites, their proposal provides cover for Arafat to move forward without appearing to concede to Israeli military pressure. Egypt’s backing for this plan is also crucial, because Egypt has been the Palestinians’ most active advocate throughout the Oslo process.

Secretary Powell’s efforts should now focus not on gaining agreements from Israel and the Palestinians, but on forging an international consensus—with the Arab states at the core—for the fundamental bargain of land-for-peace. Of course, there are many devils in the details; such problems contributed to the failure to reach agreements at Camp David and Egypt’s Taba resort during Clinton’s last year in office.

But the first step is simply to create a context in which both parties can agree to that fundamental bargain. That may mean allowing them to say yes to key backers—rather than to each other.

Establishing a U.S.-Arab partnership to end the violence will not necessarily be easy. President Bush has once again faulted Arab leaders for supporting continued violence, while the Arabs in turn doubt the administration’s determination to push for Israeli troop withdrawals.

Some fear that an active U.S. role in new negotiations would not only reward Palestinian violence, but also damage the overall U.S. interest in fighting terror worldwide. The Palestinians’ resorting to violence after the breakup of the Camp David summit created this spiral of violence. Still, we must not see rescuing the possibility of peace as a reward to terror, but rather the opposite. It is a means of showing that we will not let terrorists wreck the chance of a life of peace, dignity and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

U.S. interests

One fact in favor of a U.S.-Saudi-Egyptian partnership is that all three states have a clear stake in peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The argument for U.S. engagement is particularly compelling because it will not only help Israel and the Palestinians escape the downward spiral, but also serve important U.S. interests.

For a time, the Bush administration argued that we couldn’t want peace more than the parties in the dispute. That may be true. But it is equally true that without peace, it will be far more difficult for the United States to pursue its interests of fostering democratic change in the Middle East, securing important energy supplies and gaining cooperation for rooting out global terror.

The reality is that getting the peace process back on track will require more than just one visit by Powell. It needs determined ongoing engagement, with the direct involvement of the president.

Our Arab partners share an interest in moving this process forward because they recognize that continued confrontation could lead to a wider regional conflict, and that inflamed passions among their citizens will jeopardize their own security. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, they also have an interest in demonstrating their willingness to act as a partner to the United States.

There is no guarantee this strategy will end the violence. But without it, the future is bleak. This may be our last chance to pull the emergency brake before the trains finally crash.